Magistrate Wu brought to mind a dumpling in a steam basket, pale, wrinkly and wet with perspiration. He was hard of hearing too, forcing Zheng to give up on discretion.
At the price of strained vocal cords and half the province of Shantong being included into their conference, Zheng managed to communicate to the Magistrate that the noble Han family had sent him, the illustrious Han Zheng, the seventh son of Lord Han Yun, to deliver them from their misfortunes in response to the petition they had sent in the winter.
"Our Benefactor!" the little man whizzed, again and again. "You have braved the Contagion to come to our aid when everyone else is fleeing it! You are the bravest young man in your generation!"
Zheng bolted upright, "Contagion, my good man?! What are you talking about?! I thought it was a matter of grain shortage."
Magistrate Wu looked like he was ready to burst into tears. "Indeed, My Lord, indeed, we had a woeful shortfall! At first, the crops had failed because of the cold and rainy summer. Then it was followed by the harshest winter I have seen in my life! And I'd just retired too, My Lord, just retired. I had bought myself such a lovely house with an orchard, after years of my dutiful service to the Empire. "
Oh, who cares about your miserable life! Zheng wanted to scream, but what came out was a squawk. He cleared his throat, "Ah... About that Contagion, if you please, Master Wu?"
"That's a dreadful disease, My Lord. As I said, the winter was harsh, and it must have caused an infestation of rats in the Imperial Granary. Nobody knows how the rats got there, but they must have fouled what grain they did not eat. When we started distributing it for planting, the people started to sicken. There are entire villages dead."
The bun fell out of Zheng's trembling fingers. He fumbled for his handkerchief to spit out what he could. Ancestors, just how many bites did he take out of it? He should have known better than to eat here, diseases always clang to the filthy peasants.
Magistrate Wu droned on mournfully, "Even here, where the faeries' magic wards protect us, the people are starting to fall ill. Thrice-Blessed Landing is full of refugees and as diligent as my predecessor was with the quarantines, it is nearly impossible to keep the sickness from spreading.
Why! The poor man himself had died while doing his duty. A terrible tragedy! He was so keen, barely older than my Lord, oh, such a tragedy... That's why I had to come out of retirement, in my old age, when I should have been pruning trees and enjoying strolls through the countryside. But we all must do our duty, yes, yes..."
"Ah... of course." Zheng crumpled his handkerchief and glanced around for salvation. In the tales, there were heroes walking in at just the right time...
The door of the teahouse remained shut. He was on his own. "Luckily, I brought enough silver from the Han family for you to buy the grain from the neighboring provinces. Take the possession of the chest, my good man, and use it to help the people of Shantong!"
The salvation was within reach, making him dizzy... or was he falling sick already? Oh, he now wanted nothing more than to be on the damnable barge again.
"Of course, My Lord, of course! You'll just have to stay here long enough for me to send a messenger to Lord Zhenshi in Kefei---"
"Why?!" Zheng had not meant for it to come out high-pitched. He affected a fit of a cough, then continued in a quieter tone: "Why should I wait?!"
"The bandits, my Lord! There are lawless men who aren't afraid of neither ghosts nor death itself! First, they were hired to collect and burn the dead, but now they've taken to outright robbery and murder."
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